TAMPA — Water meter readers failed to read dozens of meters when they were supposed to, allowing leaks and unusual usage to persist unnoticed for months in some cases, the city's top water official acknowledged Thursday.
When the city finally discovered the hidden usage, customers were hit with steep bills.
Public works administrator Steve Daignault said his department is trying to determine how much the problem has contributed to the rash of high water bills in recent months.
But it is a task complicated by cryptic record keeping, which has concealed millions of gallons wasted at likely vacant homes, dramatic meter-reading errors and the names of the workers who made them, according to city records obtained by the St. Petersburg Times.
The records also show a set of bill spikes that dwarf those that have attracted media attention and led to a mayor's task force.
But ultimately the data also reveal an issue not as pervasive as perceived. Some customers have seen huge spikes, but the vast majority of bills remained stable.
Meters are supposed to be read every other month, with usage estimated in off months.
Daignault said Thursday that if a meter reader can't find the meter or if it's too scratched to be read, the billing department will estimate the usage again — leaving at least a four-month gap between actual reads.
About one meter in every 500 has been estimated when it's supposed to have been read, Daignault said. Water department director Brad Baird said it happens about 15 times per month. The city serves about 124,000 customers, many of which have multiple meters.
Daignault said the problem is largely due to hidden meters, like the one crews recently found buried under asphalt. Its usage was estimated for nearly a year.
That means the meter disappeared when the city's revenue and finance department oversaw meter reading. In July, the water department took the job over and has since worked to tighten practices, evidenced by increased consistency in the city data.
Daignault and Baird said more oversight and monthly readings, which the department is moving toward, will ensure repeated estimations don't happen.
Daignault told the City Council on Thursday that recent inspections show there are no flaws in the city's billing system or water meters. In an interview afterward, he stressed that when meters are left unread for months, water is still accurately measured. The high bill that comes after the meter is finally read just charges months of usage in a lump sum.
In these cases, the city is willing to spread charges over several months. Since January, it has also been adjusting leak-induced bills.
The city data, however, reveals a collection of customers requesting much larger adjustments.
In December and January, the data show, dozens of customers with historically low water use were billed for more than 150,000 gallons — what a shower running for six straight weeks would use. The average Tampa customer uses about 12,100 gallons every two months.
Most of the top water users in those months saw large, even exponential, jumps in their usage. But when the raw data on meter readings is matched to customer billing accounts, flaws emerged.
Of the top seven users for December and January, three were the result of incorrect meter reads, including two inactive accounts measured as using 1.5 million gallons and 880,000 gallons, respectively, in two months.
"Yes we do have meter-reading errors, but it's well under 1 percent" of all reads, Baird said. "Fat fingers, transposed numbers, numbers in the wrong column."
Baird said erroneous reads explain fewer than 10 of the thousands of complaints that have flooded his department this year. The city admitted error in an $8,000 bill sent to a local lawyer in December.
Another five of the top December-January users were inactive accounts. But Baird said these reads, for hundreds of thousands of gallons each, are accurate.
The inactive accounts still have meters, he said, so city workers have continued to read them.
Through last summer, the accounts showed little or no activity. But recently their usage skyrocketed. And though the meters are likely at vacant homes, the city did not act.
One account, which had a new meter installed even while inactive, used 333,000 gallons in the early fall, and an additional 630,000 gallons by late January.
Since October, the five accounts have used at least 2.8 million gallons, all at a loss for the city. At the city's lowest water rate, the water is worth nearly $7,000.
Baird said one of the meters was removed this week and the rest will be removed soon. He speculated the usage was because of major leaks, theft or vandalism that leaves faucets running for days.
But not all the high reads were at empty homes. Behind some were real people left with staggering bills.
Consider Daniel Borasch, whose December bill said he had used nearly 430,000 gallons in two months — nearly 30 times his average reading for the year.
He said he repaired a leak on his property Jan. 4, but still received another bill seven weeks later for 226,000 gallons. He now faces a $15,501 bill and is skeptical that the leak is the culprit.
Baird said his department is reviewing Borasch's request for an adjustment.
Then there's Christian Nwoye, who received a bill for 129,000 gallons in September, 364,000 gallons in November and 337,000 gallons in January. He said there is no visible leak at the house, which he rents to two tenants and had registered typical use for years. He owes the city $13,627 and awaits an inspection Monday.
The data reveals a complicated and cryptic system that measures reclaimed water by gallons and potable water by cubic feet. Before the water department took over meter reading last year, nearly all meter readers entered their name as 00000. Now, they use names.
But those names are missing from the entries that registered some of the largest spikes in usage. Meter readers' login IDs were written over by billing department employees inspecting the irregular reads.
Baird said the corresponding meter readers' names are in paperwork, but could take weeks to produce.
The water department has been busy for months now, inspecting homes for leaks and inspecting itself for faults.
Daignault told the council that his department has found leaks at two-thirds of the 358 homes it has inspected. High bills at the other third can be explained by increased water usage or, in some cases, meter-reading errors. "We continue to find that each case is different," he said.
The results of a mayor's task force investigation are due March 17. Until then, only speculation remains.
"I think the question you have to ask of yourself is this," said Borasch, a skeptical customer, "Did all of these things happen to all of these people at the same time by chance?"
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jack Nicas can be reached at (813) 226-3401 or firstname.lastname@example.org.